By Stan Friedman
CHICAGO, IL (May 18, 2012) – The friends of Paul Koptak, professor of communications and biblical interpretation at North Park Theological Seminary, tease him that the name of the seminary gospel bluegrass band is a redundancy: The Lonesome Theologians.
While the name may not be a redundancy or even accurate, it is a wink at the connections members share with North Park University and the seminary as students and faculty. Other members are Margaret Brady, bass; John Coomes, guitar; Catherine Buckley, fiddle; Peter Krause, mandolin; and Terry Turner, harmonica. Turner is the only one who does not have a formal connection to the school. He is a retired farmer who played in a bluegrass group with Coomes at Country Covenant Church in Elgin, Illinois.
Coomes, who came up with the name, says its origin is simple. “Because the seminary was the place we performed, we just kind of came up with a name that was kind of ‘bluegrassy’ and kind of ‘seminariany,’ ” he explains, deadpanning. “I think we just needed a name for a bulletin one day.”
Koptak adds, “We kept trying to come up with a better one, but it never came.”
The band’s origins are as ad hoc as the origin of its name. The members never intended to be a band, says Brady. She was responsible for crafting the chapel services at the school when she pulled the group together to lead worship eight years ago.
Since then, they have played multiple times at seminary chapel services, but also for audiences that have included Chicago Public School students, pastors at Covenant Harbor, nursing homes, and even the North Park University Vikings football team.
Coomes recalls the day they played for the football team. The team’s chaplain had invited the group. At first, the team was dumbfounded. “They just looked up at us,” Coomes says. “Then some of them realized they liked it.”
“The joy is catching,” says Buckley.
The music may be a new experience for the younger generation living in urban areas, but it recalls wonderful memories for other audiences, says Koptak. “There are times we have played at churches, and we’ll have older folks come up to us in tears and say, ‘I haven’t heard that song in so long,’ or ‘it reminds me of my childhood,’ or ‘that really touched me because these days in church I never hear any of the music that I was brought up on.’ ”
Band members say the performances are a way of educating others and connecting with the history of music and one aspect of American religious tradition. They note that including bluegrass music in worship is another way churches can introduce worship styles of another culture.
The sub-genre of country music was born in Appalachia with a lineage that stretches to Scotland, England, and Ireland. It also was influenced by African American spirituals. Its descendants include rock and roll, according to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio.
The music also has its fans around the world. Coomes grew up in Kentucky, but never cared for the art form until he moved to Japan as a young adult. The Japanese pastor of a church for American ex-patriots loved the music. “He called me to come down and play,” Coomes recalls. “I just got into it and realized it was something inside of me.”
The group has no regular practice schedule. “We just get together when we can,” says Koptak. Depending upon their upcoming audience, the musicians might arrange bluegrass versions of old hymns, including standards from the Swedish tradition.